The American Weed Revolution Is Being Fought in Prague

Musician and entrepreneur Ben Bronfman is lighting up the battle for legalized marijuana with a team of Czech scientists and handfuls of cash.

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Complex Original

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At the moment, it’s easier to go outside and buy weed than it is to find the definitive number of people currently incarcerated on narcotics offenses, which tells you all you need to know about the efficiency of the U.S. prison system versus that of the drug trade. But if you dig, you can find some information. According to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 208,000 people nationwide are serving time in state prisons for nonviolent drug charges. Toss in those held in federal prison, and that figure jumps to 303,000, or roughly the population of Pittsburgh.

Yes, some of those include offenders caught trafficking coke or selling heroin, which many would agree is empirically bad for society. But subtract those prisoners, and there are still 40,000 people in prison for drug possession. Maybe some of them had meth in a school zone, or something else that’s hard to justify, but what about marijuana, a plant that’s legal in some capacity in 40 states? The most recent stats show 11,000 people incarcerated on charges related to weed, with an average sentence of over seven years each. You can probably guess which demographic bears the brunt of those convictions. Hint: It isn’t upper middle class white boys caught vaping at a Phish concert. Using data from 2010, the ACLU found that, despite similar rates of use, black people were nearly four times more likely to be arrested on a marijuana-related charge than white people.

The call for reform to right some of those wrongs—or at least prevent future wrongs from happening—has gained some momentum. In October 2015, the Justice Department released 6,000 federal prisoners convicted on nonviolent drug charges. This followed action taken by President Obama that resulted in a comparatively paltry, but hey-still-something 89 inmates set free. Despite that progress here at home, the real front lines of achievable drug reform might actually be half a world away from the U.S., in a laboratory in Prague, where a team of devoted experts is studying the power of weed.

“The next revolution in cannabis is in science,” says Ben Bronfman. He’s not a scientist; he’s musician—a founding member of the now-disbanded group The Exit and the currently-still-banded T∑∆CH∑RS—and a Grammy nominee for his work co-producing Kanye West’s “New Slaves.” He’s a board member at Pioneer Works, the art space in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and a co-founder of Global Thermostat, a company that removes CO2 from the atmosphere. He’s the 33-year-old father of a seven-year-old son with rapper/activist M.I.A., and is himself the son of Sherry Brewer, an actress who appeared in Shaft, and Edgar Bronfman, Jr., the billionaire former CEO of Warner Music Group and heir to the Seagram’s fortune.

But right now, he’s focused on his newest role, as director of business development for the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute (ICCI) in the Czech Republic.

“The war on drugs and the kids that are in jail—it’s a tragedy,” Bronfman says. “And not being able to do research is a tragedy because this is a phenomenal, phenomenal plant.” Bronfman is referencing the precarious nature of marijuana research in the United States, where the drug remains illegal at the federal level. Liberal Czech marijuana laws are part of the reason why ICCI chose set up shop in Prague. In Bronfman’s mind, the research that ICCI is doing on cannabis to unlock its many medicinal benefits is a necessary to step toward the federal legalization of marijuana in the U.S. That, in turn, will result in fewer young people arrested and convicted on nonviolent drug charges that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

“When I first got involved in medical marijuana, it was because I was so pissed off about the drug war, and I knew that pot couldn’t kill you,” he says. “All these people are getting locked up, and people own prisons, and prisons are listed on stock exchanges. They’re incentivized to build volume, and then they lobby their state legislators and congressmen to make the drug laws harsher. It drives me nuts.”

Rather than pontificate from his basement recording studio, Ben went out and started poking around weed dispensaries in California to learn more about how they functioned. From there, he connected with Steph Sherer, a medical marijuana patient who founded Americans for Safe Access, a nonprofit that advocates for therapeutic cannabis use and research. Bronfman was enamored with Sherer’s no-B.S. tactics and joined the ASA board in 2011.

“She wasn’t talking about grandiose drug policy,” Bronfman says. “She was like, ‘We’re gonna take ten 70-year-old white ladies to our Republican congressman and explain to him that they need this plant for their cancer and their pain.’ So, I was like, ‘I’m gonna rock with her.’”

Sherer, who serves as the director of innovations at ICCI, has worked with other patient advocates to help shape marijuana legislation in countries from Jamaica to Poland, and was consulting on a sister organization to ASA in the Czech Republic when she and Bronfman seized an opportunity there. In 2008, the Czech Republic decriminalized cannabis. With that legislation working in her favor, Sherer helped pass a law in 2012 that made cannabis distribution through the Czech pharmacy system legal, paving the way for the creation of ICCI with the cooperation of the Czech government and researchers at Charles University. ICCI officially opened in December 2015.

ICCI focuses on what Bronfman refers to as “whole plant research”—looking at marijuana as it exists naturally, as opposed to working with synthetic extracts. ICCI touches upon everything from building a strain library to patent development—all tools that support the potency of medicinal marijuana and methods that can eventually be replicated in the States. Bronfman says the research team has already made some scientific discoveries, which ICCI will announce soon.

“We’re the only ones really focusing on how to get a bunch of research done in a professional way,” Ben says. “We’re designing clinical trials. It’s kind of funny, because I don’t have a fucking background in designing clinical trials.” But, he does have access to cash and people with it, and extensive fundraising experience.

“There’s been millions and millions of dollars spent on looking for the harms of cannabis and very low funding on looking at the benefits,” Sherer says. Research and efforts toward shifting policy require a staggering budget. “We’re talking about the need for $50 million, $100 million.”

Enter Dioscorides Global Holdings, the investment firm Bronfman co-founded that’s focused on medical cannabis product research and development. DGH provided early funding for ICCI and was listed as a partner in the launch. Bronfman is also a recognizable name who lends ICCI some credibility in the business world. “In general, I think the people that know me know how hard I work, and in the context of business, it only helps,” he says.

Sherer concurs: “Entrepreneurs have always played a role in investing in science, and those discoveries have a benefit for society at large.”

As ICCI continues to find its footing, it’s natural for Ben to think about how quickly its research can feasibly affect policy in the United States. “We'll see—the next President and where it is on their hierarchy of importance,” he says. But, he isn’t slowing down. “Everything I go after is what keeps me up at night,” he sighs. “It’s tough, man, because I just want to make music all day. But I’m involved with these projects—and they’re bigger than me.”

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